In a classic bit of Chicago-style Alinsky-esque twelve-dimensional chess, President Obama waited until the eyes of the nation were trained on the Republican primary debate to unveil the first annual report of his new committee on mind control.
What? Mind control? Oh yes. Say goodbye to freedom, sheeple.
While our minds are still our own, let's trace this story back a few years, as it is quite illustrative of the larger arc of Obama's presidency.
Early attempts at government mind control were thwarted by Glenn Beck
Several years ago, I became temporarily obsessed with behavioral psychology and its potential contributions to the energy field. (See further reading at the bottom.) Insights into how human beings make decisions in real-life circumstances can help boost conservation, reduce waste, and ease adoption of new technology. I should probably return to the subject, as I think it will be hugely important in coming years, for reasons we'll get to in a minute.
But first, a tale.
As part of my obsession, I interviewed Brian Baird (D-Wash.), a Congressman from Washington state who came to DC in 1998 with a PhD in clinical psychology.
In 2009, Baird introduced a bill, HR 3247, that would have created a program at the Department of Energy to study how the behavioral sciences might be applied to energy policy. It passed the House Science and Technology Committee in July.
That same month, ascendant right-wing radio host Glenn Beck featured the bill on his show, noting that it "doesn't sound very American."
"They're going to study us and find ways to essentially trick us into driving crappy hybrids," he said, "and I bet that's just the beginning." Then he interviewed Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who said that the purpose of the bill is "behavior modification" (words that appear nowhere in the bill) to be coordinated by a "behavior modification czar" in the DOE.
The legend of the behavior-modification bill spread quickly through right-wing media. Conservatives — who would be tricked into driving crappy hybrids over their dead bodies — deluged Congress with calls and letters.
And the backlash worked. The bill was never put to a vote in the House. Baird, sick of this shit, left Congress in 2010.
It was all part of the great Tea Party uprising that brought Congress to gridlock and has kept it there ever since.
Obama is bringing mind control back
After conservatives made it clear that the door to legislation was effectively shut for good, it took Obama years to recover his footing. But when he did, especially after the 2014 midterms, he regained a great deal of lost ground, doing via executive actions much of what he was unable to do via legislation.
Among other things, in February of last year (while I was away on sabbatical), he assembled a Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST) under the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The team, which emerged out of a 2013 research proposal, was charged with applying the insights of the behavioral sciences to improving federal policy.
The SBST just issued its first annual report (under cover of Trump!), detailing the results of various small-scale demonstration experiments it has conducted. You can read more about those experiments in the report or in stories from New York Magazine, NPR, or USA Today.
The Executive Order directs Federal agencies to identify programs in which applying behavioral science insights can yield substantial improvements; develop strategies for applying behavioral science insights to programs, and, where possible, for rigorously testing and evaluating the impact of these insights; recruit behavioral science experts to join the Federal Government; and strengthen agency relationships with the research community.
To begin with, agencies will focus behavioral insights on four areas:
- Streamlining access to programs
- Improving the presentation of information
- Structuring choices carefully
- Considering a full range of incentives
The SBST, in partnership with the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), will issue a guidance to help agencies implement the order.
The executive order formally establishes the team and Obama's FY 2016 budget increases its funding.
The right can barely be roused to protest mind control
There has been, as far as I can tell, very little hue and cry about the announcement on the right. The Daily Caller works in a few dark insinuations, but no high dudgeon. Even the Breitbart piece is pretty straightforward. The best I could find is a kind of half-hearted belch of protest from Podhoretz:
Oh, great. White House embraces bullshit. https://t.co/1zlCCIVtKn
— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) September 15, 2015
C'mon. That's it?
Honestly, the far-right outrage machine seems a little exhausted these days. They can't block Congress any more than it's blocked. Their opposition to anything Obama does is so predictable that no one, Obama included, cares any more. And they can't stop executive actions anyway, as their recent defeats on the Clean Power Plan and the Iran Deal make clear. So they just watch, stew, and think about 2016, when they'll have a chance to elect someone who will reverse everything Obama has done.
Mind control will become even more important in coming years as energy decentralizes
The intersection of behavioral psychology and energy is going to get extremely hot in the next few years. As I've described in previous posts, the electricity system is evolving from a centralized, one-way model to a decentralized, multi-directional model. Customers will be producing energy, storing it, selling it, and shopping for just the kind of backup power they want (based on carbon emissions, geographic origin, etc.). Their appliances and cars and buildings will all be connected to and communicating with the grid.
It's exciting, but also somewhat perilous. With all these new technologies and opportunities come lots and lots of decisions. Customers will be much more actively engaged with energy, rather than just passive consumers.
And here's the thing: people are lazy. Decisions are exhausting. Generally, we prefer to minimize decisionmaking, not expand it.
Right now electricity is invisible, reasonably cheap, and above all, easy. Once a month you pay the bill. The rest just happens.
If distributed and clean energy enthusiasts want customers to engage more with electricity systems, they're going to have to customers them into it. They're going to have to make the process really, really easy, even fun, and include incentives that make it worth the effort.
That will require some thoughtful product design, informed by good behavioral science. The interface between individuals and energy systems — not just technologies, but financing and business mechanisms as well — is the axle on which everything else in distributed energy turns.
If you blunder into consumer homes with a few misguided, poorly designed "smart grid" technologies (see, e.g., the disastrous rollout of smart meters in the UK), you're quickly going to turn them off to the whole enterprise.
Traditionally, the electricity sector has been dominated by engineers and bureaucrats — not exactly the sort of people you'd turn to for insights about customer experience. As the smart grid takes off and new grid-edge opportunities open up, it's extremely important that customer-facing programs and technologies draw on good behavioral science. Maybe Obama's new mind-control team can give them some pointers.
A few posts I did on behavioral psychology and energy: